A Catholic Look at The Truman Show

Believers and unbelievers have been both charmed and challenged by Peter Weir's film The Truman Show. Truman is the ultimate comic paranoid fantasy. The premise of the film is that Truman Burbank (well played by Jim Carrey) has spent his entire life on television and never known it.

Adopted by a media corporation after his parents contracted to give him up, Truman is the victim of a vast hoax. All his friends and family are actors. His life is circumscribed by a vast dome-shaped soundstage built just to house the cast, crew and special effects such as sun, moon and weather. And his every move is tracked and broadcast worldwide to billions of viewers under the careful direction of “Christof” (also well portrayed by Ed Harris). The story turns on Truman’s slow discovery of this fact and the way in which he tries to learn the truth of his existence, defy whoever is controlling things and break out of his little world. It is hilariously funny, profoundly enraging and deeply moving.

And it is also controversial. For many people, both believers and non-believers, take the film to be an atheistic tract, with Truman as a kind of Promethean Freethinker, shaking his fist at a Controller God and breaking away into Secular Maturity.

This is, however, to profoundly misread the film. For what is attacked is not theism, but happy-face secular utopianism. And the attack draws heavily on Catholic images to land its devastating blows.

Christof, for example, calls himself “the Creator” of the “Truman Show” and is shown by his very name to be a parody of Christ. He repels us with the staggering hubris of a creature attempting to make himself God (“Cue the sun!” he commands at one point). He is a reminder of the old saying that the devil counterfeits God.

Thus, Christof “loves” Truman only as long as he can own him and use him. The lengths to which he goes to do this are both hilarious and profoundly sinister. Newspapers constantly blare headlines like “Who Needs Europe?” when Truman dreams of travel. Radios, televisions, friends, family and co-workers serve up a constant stream of scripted propaganda to keep Truman docile and at home. Schoolteachers deflate the young Truman’s dreams of exploration by telling him “You’re too late. It’s all been discovered.” Even travel offices sport large posters warning of the hazards of leaving. And all the while, everything in Truman’s world is for sale and every person in Truman’s world is subtly hawking merchandise in little mini-infomercials directed at one of the hidden cameras.

But Christof does not stop there. In order to make sure Truman will never go off the air, he brutally traumatizes his subject by faking the drowning death of his father when he is a child in order to terrify him into never crossing the water which surrounds the island upon which he lives. The magnitude of the betrayal and manipulation of Truman by friends and family and special effects crews planted everywhere is both side-splittingly funny and deeply enraging. Truman (“True Man”) is surrounded by false people and manipulated by a pseudochrist who, like a fallen angel, is vastly more powerful, yet infinitely smaller than he is.

The moment of epiphany begins when Truman meets “Lauren” (a name meaning “guardian spirit”) who reveals herself to be an actress named Sylvia. Sylvia plays a minor character on ”The Truman Show,” but unexpectedly breaks out of character to tell him what is being done to him, only to be hustled off the set.

Sylvia, a name associated with trees and therefore also fraught with religious significance (e.g., “tree of life”, “Christ hung upon a tree” etc.), wears beads on her wrist as her identifying mark — an allusion to Mary and the Rosary. Later, director Weir also shows Sylvia interceding for Truman in prayer at the moment he is faced with the ultimate choice to accept or reject the sham world of Christof in favor of the real one beyond the dome. And in a crucial scene, Truman overcomes his terror of water and sails away to find Sylvia on a boat called the “Santa Maria.”

The moment Truman breaks away, Christof abandons the facade of “love” for his captive and attempts to drown him in a special effects-induced storm. Again, the Christian imagery is impossible to avoid. Truman undergoes a baptism and emerges from the water in a cruciform position when his boat (another Christian image symbolizing the Church) rights itself, and then — in one of the film’s most famous images — walks on water in the shallows at the far end of the artificial ocean.

Truman does indeed defy someone trying to make himself the “god of this world” (as St. Paul refers to Satan). But Truman is no rebellious Adam, no Marxist railing against the opiate of the masses, no Nietzsche declaring God dead, no superman creating himself. Rather, he is a creature, made in the image of the true God who is larger than the world that the “prince of his world” has attempted to jail him in. So far from being an atheistic tract or an accusation that God is evil, The Truman Show asserts as loudly as Pope John Paul II a fundamental human dignity, rooted in a transcendence that surpasses all attempts by human creatures such as Christof to own and manipulate.

Thus, Truman is emphatically not a secular myth of Man Outgrowing God or a Promethean tale of Man Learning to Live in a World Without Pie in the Sky. The film is, in fact, highly amenable to the Catholic hope of Heaven. For it is, after all, Jesus who condemns “the god of this world” and assures us there is a reality which is larger than what we see around us. Conversely, it is secularism which attempts to squash at every turn the longing of the human heart for a world beyond what is presented to our senses. It is Christian hope that seeks heaven. It is secularism which laughs this hope to scorn and insists (just like Christof) that the cosmos inside the Dome is, in the words of Carl Sagan, “all there is or ever was or ever will be.” Truman’s hope can’t be kept in by Christof’s dome. But it is secularism, not Catholic faith, which builds such domes constantly.

The interesting thing about The Truman Show is that is it not a “Christian” film in the sense that its makers were believers consciously intending the film to convey a Catholic theme or, as an Evangelical might put it, to “proclaim the Word.” Nonetheless, it does so with brilliance. Its skewering of the incoherence and inhuman pretention of secularism is both deft and devastating. Merely by attempting to tell a human story, Weir has succeeded in telling one suffused with divine truth as well, whether he meant to or not. As Catholics, this ought not to surprise us, since God has revealed himself in a human way and therefore all that is human is, to some degree, incarnational and sacramental. In Truman, the truth of Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, has once again been unexpectedly declared.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea